Saturday, July 21, 2007

Butte, Montana

While driving to Butte, Montana, I pulled off of I-90 to use the bathroom in a general store. A cantankerous old man with a ZZ Top beard, eight fingers and only half his teeth looked at me and asked, “So what the fuck’s going on in Jersey?”

“Don’t know, haven’t been there in a month and a half.”

He looked at his small black and white TV and changed the topic. “What do you think they should do with Michael Vick?”

“Who’s that?”

He looked at me like I was putting him on, then yelled, “You stupid or something?” I wish I had had the balls to take a picture of him.

I got to Butte later that afternoon. Walking around downtown Butte is to see what towns like Roswell and Tombstone might have been had single events of American history not thrust them into the spotlight, submitting them to the fate of forcing tacky souvenirs onto ugly families and their fat ugly children for the rest of eternity. To see Butte is to see a town that history mercifully left alone. Nothing extraordinary ever happened here, which is its saving grace.

Instead the historic downtown is dotted with new casinos and old sagging buildings, such as the Iona Cafe on Main Street. What was once a grand cafe and more recently an artist's exhibition space, now sits empty while its windows play home to a local poet's work.

Yesterday I took a tour with an old man named Dave who led me around downtown while explaining its history.

In the 1860’s, gold was discovered in what would become Butte. By the 1870’s, silver was discovered. And just as the silver was running out, in 1892 copper hit the scene. During the early 20th century, Butte was the biggest city between Chicago and San Francisco.

We stopped off at the old town jail, in use from 1890 to 1971 when the feds caught wind of the horrible conditions and shut it down. In 1956 Robert Knievel spent time here for reckless driving at the same time a Mr. William Kenoffel was in his own batch of trouble. While standing in court, the judge looked at the two men and scoffed, “Well whadduya know? We’ve got an evil Knievel and an awful Kenoffel.” The name stuck, and Mr. Knievel went on to a distinguished career in death defiance, while Mr. Kenoffel most likely hung around the drunk tank for the rest of his life.

The jail was followed by a speakeasy located in the lobby of the old Rookwood Hotel. In the heyday of Prohibition, the Rookwood Speakeasy was one of a hundred of its kind in Butte. Nowadays the place is occasionally rented out for $175 a night, BYOB. I know this sounds just as tacky as the other towns I’ve mentioned, but believe me, the lack of billboards 50 miles outside of town and dozens of gift shops with Rookwood T-shirts make this place distinctly refreshing.

That’s the thing about Butte. There’s history here, but only because nobody has bothered to come in and modernize the place. For some reason, the town lies beyond the national radar, and the town is allowed to quietly go about its business. In terms of urban exploration, the town is a gem, though those days may soon come to an end as properties are starting to be bought up with plans of renovation. Dave was not fond of this.

“People make fun of Butte, say it smells, but we want people to keep making fun cuz we don’t want to turn into Bozeman – all overdeveloped, strangers coming in all the time.”

Kind of a weird statement coming from a city tourguide.

It's a tough trade off - in comes increased economic prosperity, out goes the crotchety character that makes Butte so alluring in the first place. Can a town have both without selling out to tourists and yuppies?

The pleasure of my stay in Butte was amplified by the company of one Miss Abigail, local shop owner, aspiring singer and actress, couchsurfing host.

By the time I spent five minutes with Abigail I was half in love with her. She’s the kind of girl who will fearlessly describe her childhood experience with the netherworld to a perfect stranger sitting in her living room. A quirky girl. A beautiful girl with curves that don’t quit. A girl who will sit in the morning hours with a cup of tea and let a few tears fall unabashedly down her face while quietly describing her relationship with God. The only person on this trip actually interested in seeing my pictures. And I have a lot of pictures. She's one of the most beautiful people I've ever met, and thankfully I had the balls to tell her so.

It's probably a bit clich├ęd for her couchsurfers to feel that way about her, but she accepts it with a graciousness that only adds to her character.

Through Abigail I met two Mormon missionaries, searched Butte’s nightlife for viable food options, settled on an old (everything in Butte is old) Chinese restaurant whose proprietor brought a portable DVD player to our table and made us watch his son’s recent fashion show in New York, and sat at a drive in watching Harry Potter through a bug splattered windshield on a starry night in Montana.


Ezra said...

Scott, you are the man! I've been following your travels and I have to say it sounds like you are having a terrific time. And you are a good writer to boot. I actually signed up on couchsurfing a couple of months ago, but have yet to try it--until today, when I e-mail some people in Las Vegas to stay the night when I go pick up my friend at the airport. I didn't know you were into Urban Exploration either--I wish I was more ballsy myself to do it more.

Did you enjoy meeting the missionaries? You remember that I'm mormon, right?

Take care!

Kirsten said...

Hi Scott,

After reading your blog about Butte, I remembered an article I read about how artists are helping to revive Butte. Maybe this type of redevelopment will bring some economic prosperity without the type of tourists and profit-hungry outside developers who could ruin exactly what had brought the tourists or new residents to Butte in the first place.

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